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Nevada football offseason opponent preview: UC Davis

C.K. Hicks/UC Davis Athletics

Barring any unforeseen setbacks, which could occur with the COVID-19 outbreak, there are 12 Saturday’s until the Nevada Football team will begin its 2020 season. Here is a look at its 2020 schedule:

Nevada Football 2020 Schedule

Date Opponent Time TV 2019 Final FPI Rankings 2020 Preseason FPI Rankings
Date Opponent Time TV 2019 Final FPI Rankings 2020 Preseason FPI Rankings
August 29 vs. UC Davis TBD TBD --------- ---------
September 5 at Arkansas TBD TBD 93 66
September 12 vs. UTEP TBD TBD 128 129
September 19 at South Florida TBD TBD 95 86
September 26 vs. San Diego State TBD TBD 71 88
October 3 at Hawai'i TBD TBD 79 119
October 10 BYE --------- --------- --------- ---------
October 17 at New Mexico TBD TBD 121 124
October 24 vs. Fresno State TBD TBD 81 93
October 31 vs. Utah State TBD TBD 73 85
November 7 at San Jose State TBD TBD 103 108
November 14 vs. Wyoming TBD TBD 68 77
November 21 BYE --------- --------- --------- ---------
November 28 at UNLV TBD TBD 116 117

Each Friday leading up to the season, I will be previewing each Pack opponent on its schedule. This week, we will be previewing its opening opponent, the UC Davis Aggies.

Now let’s get into it!

Week 1: UC Davis Aggies

2019 record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Sky)

When: Saturday, Aug. 29

Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

Matchup History: Nevada leads 29-21-3

UC Davis 2019 season-in-review:

Coming off a tough 34-29 loss to 3-seed Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals of the 2018 FCS playoffs — its first ever playoff appearance — UC Davis had high expectations. It was ranked at No. 5 in the preseason AFCA Coaches Poll and were projected to finish second in the Big Sky Conference heading into the 2019 season. The Aggies did not live up to that hype. They began the year 2-2 in their non-conference slate, including road losses to California and top-ranked FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. Their loss to NDSU was the first of a three-game losing skid. UC Davis won three of its next four games, but capped-off its disappointing season with two consecutive losses to No. 10 Montana State and Sacramento State. It is worth nothing that it was no easy schedule for the Aggies — playing five combined opponents in either the FBS or were ranked. They went 0-5 in those games.

2020 Preview:

Offense:

UC Davis’ offense back-tracked from its remarkable 2018 season, leading to struggles. After finishing in the Top-10 in the FCS in scoring in 2018 with 39.7 points per game, it tallied just 28.7 points per contest last season, good enough for No. 52 nationally. In 2019, the offense produced 55.9 fewer yards (488.9 to 433.0), 13.6 fewer passing yards (322.8 to 309.2) and 3.7 fewer first downs (24.2 to 20.5) first downs per game compared to 2018.

UC Davis loses its all-time leading passer Jake Maier (graduation), who set program records for career passing yards (11,163), completions (992) and attempts (1,495). Hunter Rodrigues was the only other quarterback to throw a pass for the Aggies last year, completing 6-of-13 for 62 yards. Rodrigues — along with Brock Johnson, Gunnor Faulk and Miles Hastings, among others — will be vying to earn the starting quarterback job next fall. Last year, UC Davis boasted the third-best passing offense in the Big Sky and the sixth-best in the nation, throwing for 309.2 yards per game.

The Aggies return All-Big Sky second team honoree and third-team STATS FCS All-American Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. at running back. Gilliam Jr. led the Big Sky in rushing yards (1,249) and rush yards per game (104.1) — both ranking in the Top-15 among all FCS rushers. He finished sixth in the Big Sky in rushing touchdowns (11) and seventh in yards per carry (5.1). The 5-foot-9 tailback was also the team’s best pass catcher, hauling in a team-high 57 catches for 354 yards and a receiving score. Without Maier and uncertainty at quarterback, Gilliam Jr. could be asked to carry more of the load in the 2020 season.

The Aggies will return their three wideouts from last year’s team in Khris Vaughn, Lance Babb II and Jared Harrell. Vaughn, who made the All-Big Sky honorable mention team last year, led all Aggie receivers in receptions (53). The 6-foot-1 wideout tallied 756 receiving yards with nine touchdowns — both team-highs. Babb II hauled in 46 receptions for 563 yards with four scores. Harrell finished third among receivers — fifth on the team — in catches with 35 for 415 yards and three touchdowns. UC Davis does lose reigning second-team All-Big Sky tight end Wes Preece (graduation), but with most of its main core returning, the Aggies could have another productive year through the air.

The Aggies return all five offensive lineman, led by All-Conference left guard Jordan Ford. Continuity on the offensive line benefits both the new starting quarterback and Gilliam Jr. heading into 2020. The group did a good job protecting Maier last year, tying atop the Big Sky with Montana State with the fewest sacks allowed (14).

Defense:

UC Davis’ defense struggled in stints last year, finishing No. 103 (out of 124 teams) in total defense (444.3 ypg) and No. 55 in scoring defense at 29.3 points per game.

The Aggie defensive line is led by defensive tackle Bryce Rodgers. Rodgers was the T-5 on the team in tackles with 49. The 6-foot-3, 285-pound lineman was second on the team in sacks (4.0) and fourth in tackles-for-loss (6.0). The only other starting defensive lineman from last year’s team was nose tackle Josiah Suani. He totaled 16 tackles, 0.5 sack and 5.0 tackles-for-loss as a redshirt freshman.

The linebacker core loses its starting middle linebacker and its leading tackler Eric Flowers (graduated), but still retains some talent. It is led by All-Big Sky linebacker Nick Eaton and Connor Airey. Eaton, who was dubbed the conference’s Freshman of the Year and was named to the HERO Sports Freshman All-American team, was outstanding last season. He led the team in tackles-for-loss (12.0), sacks (6.5), forced fumbles (5) and pass breakups (6). Eaton was fourth in tackles with 56. Airey recorded 76 total tackles — third-most on the team — with two tackles-for-loss, four pass breakups and one fumble recovery.

All-Big Sky first team honoree and All-American Devon King leads UC Davis’ secondary, which retains all four of its starters. King led the team in interceptions (3) and was second on the the team in tackles (77), pass breakups (5), forced fumbles (3) and was fifth in tackles-for-loss (5.5). Safety Erron Duncan totaled 42 tackles with four tackles-for-loss and four pass breakups. His sidekick at the top, safety Chris Venable, had 38 tackles with 1.5 tackles-for-loss last season. Cornerback Jordan Perryman tallied 41 total tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one interception and two pass breakups.

Overall

The main storyline of UC Davis heading into 2020 will be: Who will be starting at quarterback on opening night? Especially since players have not been able to workout at their respective campuses for much of the last few months, nothing has been determined yet. UC Davis already has a leg-up on most programs by already going through its spring camp in its entirety prior to the pandemic, so there is already familiarity with its roster heading into the 2020 season. Two years removed from making their first ever playoff appearance, the Aggies look to return for the second time in 2020.